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U3A Writing: Rites of Passage 1939 –1945

...Wherever I went the Luftwafte came too. In Swansea we had raids almost nightly because the steelworks, the dock gates and the refinery were targets. If the refinery was hit, there would be huge columns of black smoke with great bubbles of flame at their centres...

Dilys Birtwistle vividly recalls wartime days.

When I returned to University in October 1939, all the Czech refugee students who had decorated every flat surface with graffiti of Hitler crucified on a swastika had gone - 'joined up' like so many of the local students.

As well as books we all carried dual-purpose handbags/gas mask cases, but until the end of the phoney war life was fairly normal. Then things changed and the full moon meant danger rather than romance.

My fourteen-year-old brother was an ARP messenger running from post to post during raids, cultivating an allotment as well as the front lawn which had become a potato patch, doing forestry work with the rest of his form during the long holidays and coping successfully with school work.

My mother, garbed in green WVS uniform, helped in the church canteen, knitted balaclavas and socks and brought lonely soldiers home for occasional meals. My father, who had served in the Great War, worked longer hours because he was short of staff. And I learnt first-aid and did my stint of fire-watching and got on with the academic work I enjoyed.

Home was different because the drawing room had gone upstairs and my parents' bedroom had gone downstairs. My brother slept on a camp bed in the 'glory hole' under the stairs and I remained defiantly in my bedroom next door to the study - except when the raids were really bad. Then I dragged the suitcase containing my precious notes and my nicest clothes from under my bed and joined the rest of my family under the kitchen table.

Rationing was tight and my mother, like so many other women, fed us marvellously. I often wonder what she went without. She had a supplementary source of milk because when he had poured our meagre allowance into a jug, the milkman splashed a generous helping into the dog's bowl. So mother bought a new bowl and trained the dog to avoid it like the plague, and we had hot milk at bedtime.

Wherever I went the Luftwafte came too. In Swansea we had raids almost nightly because the steelworks, the dock gates and the refinery were targets. If the refinery was hit, there would be huge columns of black smoke with great bubbles of flame at their centres - and these had to be doused before the next nightfall. The shoreline was full of flotsam from ships mined in the bay.

My 76-year-old grandmother took the youngest grandchildren and my semi-invalid aunt to a primitive cottage in Carmarthenshire, and when we had the big blitz she said she could read in the garden 25 miles away - which I am sure is true because when they hit the ammunition dump at Okehampton about 50 miles away across the Bristol Channel we could see the glow.

Searchlights, AA guns and barrage balloons were sited on the University playing fields, and when the raiders were caught in the searchlight beams and the guns started up, either we or the enemy usually shot down the odd balloon. So in the mornings we would see people whose windows had gone in the night trudging up from the beach with great sheets of grey balloon fabric to do temporary repairs until the glaziers arrived.

The raiders followed me to Cardiff and then to Exeter, where I was fire-watching in the city centre during the first of the Baedeker raids. And that was a terrifying experience.

The raid started early and eventually we went to the underground shelter - but didn't stay long as a bomb close by sent the steel doors flying across the area. When we scrambled up the short flight of stairs to ground level, we saw the great window, which was three storeys high, sliding down the staircase in a river of glass.

We dashed out to the shelter in the centre of Bedford Circus and every building was a massive torch. There was a badly injured boy in the shelter we went to and I had to run a long way to the hospital to get help for him - and it was, inevitably a long time coming.

When it came I left for my digs outside the city. Drivers were taking the buses out to safety and were picking up anyone who wanted to go. The voluntary conductors were full of the usual chaff and ours stopped the bus to take a bottle of milk off a doorstep to try to ease the pain of my scorched face.

Safely out of the city they just left the bus and I started to walk the rest of the way, terribly distressed because I had been told that a direct hit had killed every one in the control room where dear Charles, my landlord, was on duty. How was I to tell Mary?

Then across the road I saw him, rushed across and flung myself into his arms. He hadn't been able to get in earlier and because they were terrified for me he was going in to search for me. After that night Mary made us abandon the house in raids and lurk under hedges and haystacks. Lovely Exeter was a smoking shambles and the stench of death was everywhere - stronger than the smell of hawthorn hedges.

I worked in London and again I was lucky. There were six bombs in a stick and after the sixth you could breathe again! I later made trips up to the city when the buzz bombs came - and they weren't nice. They made a noise like a motorcycle starting up on your window ledge!

People's honesty in difficult times could be amazing. When you left your shoes outside your hotel bedroom door they were always there (cleaned!) in the morning. I used to cycle from Vauxhall Bridge to the bank at the bottom of Victoria Street - and leave my unlocked bike propped against the wall whilst dealing with the money. Then I would go across to Gofinges (long since vanished) to see what was available - and then I'd go back and the bike would still be there.

I was in Cheltenham when the news of the Normandy landings came, and a woman rushed out shouting, “We've landed!” And suddenly there were women weeping with excitement - and dread.

It was a complete surprise, even though my mother told me that you could have walked across Swansea Bay on the closely packed ships. One of my colleagues was married to a Padre - one of many who had been giving communion to troops continuously from midnight to midday.

During the war I met my husband who had been pressing for another overseas posting for months. As soon as we were engaged he got one, and wasn't terribly pleased!

We had eight days’ notice and my mother gave me a superb wedding. Friends streamed up the path with gifts of sugar, margarine, hoarded dried fruit, tins of Spam and corned beef.

My mother made me a magnificent two-tier cake with proper icing, not the cardboard cover, which was what most girls got. Mary, my dear friend from Exeter, sent me her pre-war wedding dress as soon as I wrote to tell her I was engaged, and my youngest aunt found her wedding veil and a bottle of perfume.

Sadly my brother, who was on a naval vessel off the Scottish coast, couldn't get leave and we missed him.

We had a week together before Arthur sailed from Liverpool complete with Arctic and tropical kit, which confused him as well as the enemy.
He ended up in Italy and went up through Austria, where he had to deal with Russian and German ammunition dumps. So our war didn't end on VE day, as my brother was in minesweepers and they were both busy in hazardous jobs.

I went back to Cheltenham, where I lived in a lovely Regency house, with a remarkable lady who ran her walled garden, growing all our vegetables and giving the surplus to the hospital where she had returned to work.
As soon as VE day came she had me crawling out on the portico putting up flags. I was terrified and not helped by the group of laughing Americans cheering me on from outside the garden.

Eventually I came to Lancashire - and have remained here with increasing pleasure ever since. The pain, fear and anxiety of war affected all my generation; but most of us can remember the fellowship, kindness and courage of the people we met.

Odds and Ends

1. I cannot resist listing some odd memories of wartime. If I included them in an account of 'my war' it would become a two-volume book!

2. The bays around the Gower coast were studded with vertical tram lines to impede invaders.

3. There were minefields across the mouths of some narrow bays.

4. There were decoy lights at some distance from the actual airfield in Gower.

5. Mines were dropped out in the bay so there were explosions at sea. Flotsam and jetsam lined the high tide mark - including oranges which were too salty too eat.

6. All towns where I experienced bad raids were immediately flooded with cigarettes, oranges and films - as consolation?

7. Provincial towns benefited marvellously from the movement from London of superb opera, plays and orchestras.

8. The cotton industry must have done well out of ladies like my mother who bought miles of Bolton twill, dyed black to line blackout curtains!

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